Heidi Blickenstaff Talks Healing and Head-Banging in Broadway's Jagged Little Pill
"In that Broadhurst Theatre you end up climbing so many stairs," says Heidi Blickenstaff about her new Broadway home. "Every step I take, I'm like, 'Thank you stair step, thank you stair step…'"
Blickenstaff's renewed gratitude for stair climbing, rusty plumbing, and windowless dressing rooms comes after a year and a half of dark theaters with no sense of when or if the lights would come back on. She now finds herself in the biggest role of her career as Mary Jane Healy in the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill — the matriarch of a family in crisis with issues of opioid addiction and sexual assault, among others, caving in around her.
As a veteran of Broadway musicals like [title of show], The Little Mermaid, and Something Rotten! — and the star of regional productions of Next to Normal and Freaky Friday (a role she reprised on Disney Channel) — Blickenstaff's turn as Mary Jane brings together the most challenging and most rewarding elements of her extensive theatrical résumé. It is also helping set a new post-pandemic precedent for working mothers on Broadway, with Blickenstaff planning to eventually share the role with her friend, and Jagged Little Pill's original Tony-nominated star, Elizabeth Stanley, who is currently on maternity leave.
"We are not at all the same Mary Jane," says Blickenstaff. "In our industry, there is a lot of inherent competition. Elizabeth and I are in a beautiful, rare relationship where we are such apples and oranges, and our differences are being celebrated." Soon, audiences will be able enjoy each of their powerhouse performances back-to-back. But for the time being, Blickenstaff is tackling the full Broadway schedule and reveling in every dreamy, exhausting, stair-ridden day.
Welcome back to Broadway! How are you feeling after your first few weeks with Jagged Little Pill?
I'm acclimating to this new back-to-Broadway schedule after sitting on my couch for a year and a half. Kate Reinders and I — we did Something Rotten! together, and we used to say that we love a "cocktail role". Over 40, those cocktail roles are delightful, and this is not that. Mary Jane Healy is a mountain to climb every show. Freaky Friday was enormous. Next to Normal was gargantuan. But this role is even larger than those, and to be doing it on Broadway is a horse of a different color. My entire life is basically just about getting me back out there.
How did this part come your way?
As the months wore on during the pandemic, it just became apparent that the reopening of Broadway was not going to line up perfectly for Elizabeth to be able to reopen the show. I am incredibly close with Tom Kitt, who is the orchestrator genius behind Jagged Little Pill, and Tom and I started talking, and then Elizabeth and I started talking, and it just seemed like a very natural fit. All the right people were sort of circling up to give it the green light, and before I knew it, I was in rehearsal. And for Elizabeth and I to be eventually sharing the role, it was kismet. It's a little unprecedented what we're doing, and I cannot imagine doing it in an isolated way. We're very much doing this together.
What does that collaboration look like for you and Elizabeth? Do you discuss character choices?
Literally the other day — I'm having a moment in the show where I'm longing to get a laugh, and I reached out to her and was like, "Do you get a laugh there? And if you do, what's your laugh recipe?" I have a feeling the two of us are going to be stealing the best parts of each other's performance.
Do you see this as a potentially substantial shift for the Broadway industry?
It does feel like this is a moment of change in our industry, and I'm so proud to be representative of that. I have stepsons and they're both in college now, so I was at the right place in my life where I could take this bull by the horns. But I certainly know what it's like to be a parent and how hard it is. There are lots of women in the industry who had babies during the pandemic who are now back doing Broadway shows trying to figure out this new normal and I think it's pretty extraordinary that we are having this moment of being able to support our Broadway mothers more.
Tell me about your personal history with Alanis Morissette's music. Were you belting out songs from the Jagged Little Pill album back in the '90s?
For sure. I was just out of college and listening to that album on repeat over and over again and tapping into my inner rage monster like I think a lot of people, but particularly women, were. It was such a revolutionary album at the time, and still is.
I get to sing the songs that I was obsessed with, including "Uninvited" and "Forgiven." There's a moment in "Forgiven" where I hear Alanis in my head and I tap into my inner rock star and it's the most liberating thing. You see the audience gently head banging — like, a sensible Broadway head bang. It's just really fun to dig in like that as an actor-singer.
You have a couple of personal connections to the themes of Jagged Little Pill. Without saying more than you're comfortable with, what do you think the show gets right about the difficult topics it tackles?
A lot. I know that there has been a tremendous effort to tell this story with a lot of integrity, because there's a lot going on in Jagged Little Pill. And there are a couple of issues that are incredibly personal to me. I am a survivor of sexual abuse, and I also have someone in my family who is a recovering addict. I have never done a show that hits so close to home, so reliving my own experiences every night is both wildly challenging and incredibly healing. And I think it's a byproduct of what Jagged is doing for some audience members. I have very specific flashes during the show of my own story, and, without sounding dramatic, it can be very painful at times. But immediately behind the pain is this cleansing of it. I'm no longer in denial about, I no longer have to hide any of it, and if it helps someone else — god, isn't that one of the amazing things that art can do.
Having such a warm audience response must also make it more comfortable to share these parts of yourself.
It is unbelievable, I gotta say. During the pandemic, there were absolutely more moments than not where I wondered if I was ever going to work again. I was thinking about getting my masters, I was just trying to reinvent, reinvent, reinvent, as I know so many people in the theater community were also doing. And so to return like this with the coolest show in town, I feel so grateful to be back.
Not only are you back, but you get the final bow of the night.
Yeah, it is dreamy. I've always been a little scared of that if I'm honest. I've never had the final bow on Broadway, and I am not a youngster anymore. To have this happen at this point in my career, especially given where we have just come from, it is particularly sweet. Every night that I walk out I am pretty gobsmacked that this is my story right now.